A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Farewell to India- for now.

I write this on my last night in India.

Seven weeks in India. Seven weeks of what?

Of colour, lots of it. Colour as iridescent saris blaze around every street corner. Then the glossy black and yellow of taxis and the glaring orange of festival flowers. The piquant green of tea plantations. The lush green of coconut plantations. The lazy green of cardamom trees. The black of a girl’s oiled hair, the black of men’s moustaches, the pupils of eyes (you staring at them, them staring at you). The chorus of colour as Diwali swings into fare; fireworks painting the sky like a circus. The pink of pickle. The night blue of night trains. The bright light of bright days.

Seven weeks of bright, busy days.

Looking back on my time here, I realise I’ve been to places and done things I never thought I would do.

Travelling at speed on the back of motorbikes through the alleyways of Mumbai, and Chennai, and other unpronounable places like Thiruvananthapuram. Wild rickshaw rides. Slow taxi rides. Plenty of traffic jams. Wonderful, long, lulling train journeys. Queues. More queues. Waits. Punctures. Blessings. Grace.

I’ve been to a school experimenting with science teaching. Another with children’s banking. Another with philosophy. I’ve visited women ragpickers who have joined together to form recycling units. I’ve been to a bio-gas plant. I’ve had a jiving lesson. I’ve sat in on karate classes. I’ve been to a surprise party. I’ve had conversations about venture philanthropy, partnership, business, arranged marriage, female infanticide, terrorism, corruption, altruism, God, schizophrenia, innovations, marketing strategy, Bollywood, home, love. I’ve lost count of the cups of chai I’ve drunk.

I’ve swum in the Arabian Sea. Paddled in the Indian Ocean. I’ve gone on long walks, got lost, and ended up on longer walks. I’ve been to a Jatropha plantation. I’ve sat with professors, teachers, scientists, social workers, politicians, restaurateurs. I’ve learned about the long-term commitment needed for rural transformation. I’ve learned about artificial insemination in cows. I’ve been to a mushroom farm, a bio-technology lab, a vocational college.

I’ve been into temples. I’ve been blessed with blessed water. I’ve been given flowers, sweets, spontaneous hugs. I’ve meditated in Auroville’s matrimandir. I’ve seen a solar powered kitchen and a battery powered car. I’ve met people working to combat child sex abuse, child labour, child trafficking. I’ve met others working to promote rural innovation. I’ve met a women who creates beautiful children’s literature. I’ve met another who helps kick-start social ventures. I’ve met up with old friends from Ireland and met lots of new friends.

I’ve seen flowers which bloom once every twelve years. I’ve seen ancient sculpture. I’ve been to a crocodile farm. I’ve touched a python. I’ve seen women stand up for their rights. I’ve danced with former child labourers and heard the stories of their liberation, from their liberators. I’ve given puppet shows, with mixed success.

I’ve given to beggars. Stepped over beggars. Not known how to respond to beggars.

I’ve lost my wallet (again), and had it returned to me, money and cards intact (again).

I’ve been to an adoption centre. I’ve been to tiny roadside restaurants and five star hotels. I’ve been into the homes of people celebrating their sacred festivals.

I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. I’ve been exhausted. I’ve been exhilarated. I’ve been learning. I’ve been trying to make sense of it all.

Travel does this to you. It enriches as it shakes. Perceptions start to shift and alter. You start to shift and alter. You take a step and the world unfolds with colour and learning. You take a step and the world takes the next ten.

The world? Well, it’s the people you meet along the way who point you in the right direction. Or a book you read which clarifies a point. Or a film you see which sparks a train of new thought. Or that kid you play football with. Or that mother you make eye contact with. Or that beggar you pass on the street.

Seven weeks. I know. I can hardly believe how much can be packed in. A lot has happened, and there is still a lot more to come.

I am thankful. I am lucky. I am learning.

The journey continues. Onwards. Inwards. Outwards.

Beyond the Cuckoo's Nest. The work of Anjali

The Goal.

Give me a break now
To savour the flow of joy in an open meadow-
Oh, give me a break now.

The back alleys of love
I can’t comprehend.
Who’s good and who’s bad
I’m not concerned.

It all mixes and mingles-
Let’s all say together- Come
Let’s create a society so dear,
That the whole world will
Stir in wonder.

I understand monotheism
Understand waterfalls
And Mandakini’s surge
All of you might be planets and meteors,
I want to be a star.

- Shaktipada Jana (Anjali Rehab Programme Participant)
Translated from the original Bengali by Paramita Banjeree.

‘Shaktipada Jana (35) was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was admitted to Lumbini Park Mental Hospital as a long staying patient. Anjali facilitated the process of reintegrating him into his family in 2003. He works in a motor garage. With a passion in poetry, he has gifted Anjali three hard bound notebooks full of his own poems’.

So opens Anjali’s book, ‘Beyond the Cuckoo’s Nest’. It is no ordinary little book; for it brings you into rare societal places, which are too often locked away. It is part of Anjali's, a Kolkata based organisation's work to promote awaremess of mental health issues.

Visiting the Anjali team in Kolkata, I got a chance to visit the Lumbini Mental Hospital. Hospital? Well, that would be pushing it. It looked and felt more like a prison. Patients locked in drab wards. Little stimulation. Bare beds. The patients were admitted for care, what they generally receive is neglect; often over medicated, over sedated, almost criminalised.

Anjali, however are working hard to change the system- both within the hospitals, and without; working with state bodies and the media to change the way mental illness is perceived and responded to.

In the hospital they organise therapeutic interventions for ‘participants’; art, music, drama, dance and also basic life skills. I was just in time to attend one of the music therapy sessions and see a group of women who came alive again given the opportunity to express themselves; they certainly know how to sing and dance, and yes, once again little Clare was pulled up to perform!

Rathaboli Ray, the founder of Anjali, explained some of the workings of the system to me. The admittance procedure to metal hospitals is heavily legalised. Once admitted patients are rarely released, for again it would involved the courts and complex legal proceeding. But this is one area where Anjali are now working. They work with the courts to secure release for healthy participants, and then work with families to re-integrate the Anjali participant into the community.

Beyond this, they rally the media, raising awareness of the conditions in the state hospitals, promoting change.

Anjali’s model has been replicated to eight other mental hospitals. Progress has been made. It is slow, hard work, but at least with their efforts, an alternative model has been proved to be effective.

Some Images from the Ashrams

Some images from my visit to BBA's Ashrams.

(Above: Moi, Kailash Satyarthi, Nathan Cryder, Greg Murray- at Bal Ashram, Rajasthan

Meet Kailash Satyarthi- Child Rights Defender. Literally.

I have met many people who go out on a limb for social change, but Kailash Satyarthi literally risks his. Liberating children from bonded child labour is no easy task. But that is what Kailash and the team of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) do, and then rehabilitate the children back into the community. So far over he has liberated over 40,000 bonded labourers, including 28,000 children.

This is Indian Jones meets Social Entrepreneurship.

I have been putting off writing this posting. Mostly because it is so difficult to do justice to his work, and I have been thinking incessantly about my time with the BBA gang and the kids at the Ashrams since my visit.

So, for now, I’ll just share some snippets.

Arriving at the Bal Ashram, a rehabilitation home for boys in Rajasthan, about a five hour drive from Delhi, the children came running to us. When they saw Bhuwan, Kailash’s son (and also a leading human rights activist in India), the kids flocked. When Kailash arrived they went wild. A bucket of water was produced and there followed a magic water fight, all of us loving every moment. What makes it all the more pertinent is that just weeks or months before, these kids were locked in some factory, likes slaves to industry.

There followed a weekend of pure joy. We played games. Sang. Danced like never before. Listened to Kailash, Bhuwan and the team recount the stories of the ‘raids’ they conduct on factories. Ate great food. Joked. I asked if the party is a rare occasion (where the kids spend a couple of hours in the evening singing and dancing). Nope. It happens every night.

A few days later, I also got to visit the girl’s Ashram, closer to Delhi. Again, the same atmosphere prevailed. I connected with a little girl called Pooja. She looked about 5 at most. Tiny limbs. Shy at first, then opening up. I was told later that she was 8. The conditions in the place she had worked had stunted her growth to that extent.

The ‘Raid and Rehabilitation’ model is controversial work. Not all agree with the approach, but the recognition and awards with Kailash has won is testament to his stamina and conviction. The joy and growth of these kids is enough to convince me.

You can read more on Kailash Satyarthi on http://www.kailashsatyarthi.net/
He is also profiled in Speak Truth to Power and The New Heroes.

Kailash is founder of Global March for Children and board of The Global Campaign for Education.

He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize this year (I am hoping his day will come soon).

A privilege and honour to share time with him, the team and the kids. Thanks to all, and especially to Priyanka from Global March for helping me to arrange the visit. My time there is a prize in my memory bank. Unforgettable.

Going to School In India

Lisa Heydlauff went on her own journey a few years back, travelling around India for nine months with a photographer. Collecting stories. Collecting images. The initial product of the journey is a magnificent publication called ‘Going to School in India’, a story book for kids which portrays the journey of children across the country to school. Some travelling in rickshaws, some on boats, some walking long distances.

I say ‘initial’ publication because Going to School became more than just a book, but a movement creating ‘change media’ highlighting positive educational stories. Lisa has branched into documentary making, to promote the value of education, and produces local language books on ‘Going to School’, all the time not compromising on the design elements of the publication or product.

But it hasn’t been a smooth road. Convincing publishers. Securing distribution. Getting further finance to roll out the project. Growing the management team. Working with full time staff and freelancers. But they are growing. Next project involves promoting entrepreneurship to young people across India.

What excites me about Going to School is not just the quality of their products, but that they use media is used as a trigger for social action. The books are beautiful too.

Going to School can be purchased on Amazon

Innovations at the bottom of the pyramid

Back in Chennai I met with Paul Basil, CEO of RIN (Rural Innovations Network.

The author C.K. Prahalad has claimed that there are Fortunes at the bottom of the poverty pyramid, but as there are fortunes, there are also innovations. Indigenous, local ones which can provide technological solutions to local needs,appropriately. RIN incubates such ideas and supports local inventors to design, market and sell their inventions. An insect trap for example, or a manual milking machine.

Bringing a product to market is a complex process; an inventor may have a fabulous prototype, but little knowledge of how to scale up production. Or they may have a fantastic marking and distribution model, but their product design needs tweaking.

RIN tries to identify and coach winning ideas to scale. They reward with recognition, and support local entrepreneurs through the highs and lows of the process. Not all products will make it. That is the nature of invention. For the ones that do, they may have the power to transform rural communities. For Paul, that prospect is indeed is worth the effort.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Like the Stars Coming to the Earth

This is the way Om, a yogic taxi driver I had, described Diwali night. Diwali is one of the main festivals in India, and is particularly celebrated in Northern India. Delhi was no exception. The feeling of festivity was in the air all day. Houses were decked in garlands of bright orange flowers. Candles were lit across the city; along railings, up stairwells, in windows. The markets full of last minute shoppers.

Then, as dusk fell, the festivities took to the skies, as families lit masses of fireworks. Flashes of red, blue, white and green illuminated. Children ran around with firecrackers. Sweets were distributed. Offerings made to the Gods. Neighbours shared festive greetings, wishing each other happiness and health. I got to join in.

In a rickshaw on the way back to my hotel, the driver had to dodge flaring rockets, more firecrackers, and loud bangers. A colourful end to a colourful day. Wonderful!

The seed that can change the world

..if managed well, and understood.
Jatropha seed.

Jatropha Hunting.

There is a small seed which is getting a lot of attention in the biofuel world these days. Some think of it as a quick fix to impending international fuel shortages. Some see it as money spinner. Some as pure hype. But there are a group of people who are looking into Jatropha as a tool for poverty alleviation in rural areas- when managed and run well.

Much of last week was spent running around learning more. A friend of mine, Greg Murray, was visiting India on a Jatropha research trip, and so I got to tag along. The journey took us to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, where some of the leading world experts in Jatropha research are based. We then headed out to a field site to see a research plantation in action, and then up to Delhi, to meet with Sagun Saxena, the CEO of Clean Star Energy, a social enterprise which is looking into sustainable ways of creating employment and energy in rural India.

A fascinating week. A fascinating plant.
One of the most interesting things about Jatropha is that is can grow in virtually any soil and does not require much water. So that means arid soils and deserts can suddenly become productive. There is a huge amount of land across India (and the Middle East and North Africa) which is currently barren.

The communities in these areas are struggling. Income generation options are few. Urban migration is extraordinarily high. But it is in these conditions that Jatropha can be grown, and within a few years start producing decent yields. On average you can get 1 litre of oil per tree, per year. Not much. But when you roll out production on a mass scale, yields can start to become commerically viable.

Internationally, the demand for alternative fuel supplies is growing, but more research is needed, espically when it come to understanding the impact on local farmers. The Clean Star guys are doing just that. They have a pilot plantation in rural Maharashtra, are asking the right questions, spending time with the farmers, understanding their needs, looking at cost management, and investigating the corresponding social impact. It will take some time; time they are willing to invest.

Is Jatropha a panacea? Well maybe. With the Clean Star contingent on the ground, the research heads of the university engaged, and Greg Murray on the prowl (looking into replication in the Middle East and Africa), give it a couple of years (time for the plants to grow, and some longitudinal research to be done) we may find out.

Where can one be most effective?

This was a question I posed to Andal Damodaran, a woman who has been working in the field of Child Rights for over 30 years.

She is now president of the Indian Council of Child Welfare, and also part of the Education section of the Indian Planning Commission (a body which brings together leading figures and works on national policy formation). Andal has devoted her life to Child’s Rights issues, actively campaigning for the abolition of child labour the prevention of female infanticide.

For Andal, effectiveness happens at both end of the scale. We met in her office in the city of Chennai. Below her office is a street centre for boys, the sounds of their play and laughter reaching though the windows. As Andal explained, it is her time with the boys which keeps her policy work real.

The policy work keeps her running around the country, sitting on various boards, doing media interviews, writing articles and proposals. My interview with her was sandwiched between two others, both to be broadcast on the evening news, in whcih she was discussing a law coming into effect prohibiting child labour in restaurants, hotels, tea shops and recreational facilities.

She is a busy lady. She knows that her policy work is about bringing vision and possibility to the table. Realistically 40% of that may end up in actual policy; but at least it is 40% better than nothing at all. And the work with the kids? It reminds her time and time again why meeting after meeting, board after board is important. They are the voice she is representing. Their laughter keeps it real.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Adapting Adoptions?

Back in Chennai, and I spent a day with Sujartha Balaji, who is working with Hands to Hearts, a organisation which provides training in therapeutic massage and care giving to staff in orphanages and adoption centres.

A visit to an adoption centre was a education.

Here are a few ramblings from my journal as I tried to capture some of my polar thoughts.

Visiting the adoption centre both warmed and angered. The centre itself was clean, reasonably well equipped, and from the little time that I spent there, it seemed relatively well managed. Importantly, the staff were engaged; open, welcoming, and spoke eagerly about the training from Hands to Hearts. However, talking about the future of some of these kids and the interlocking social issues, pulled some painful heart strings.

The children stay at the centre for an average of 2 years. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Up to five years is common after which they are transferred to an orphanage.
They are put up for adoption for a number of reasons, mostly kids out of wedlock- taboo here, or they were born with a disability- major taboo.
The future, or rather the lack of it, for the latter category, is not promising.

Suja explained. When Indian couples want to adopt they register their interest and child preferences. Ideally they want a fair skinned male, but given that most of the abandoned children are female, a fair skinned girl will suffice. Ideally, the child will have some resemblance to the adopting parents- same eyes, same nose.

Suja elaborated. Most of the parents never tell the child that they are adopted- a risky game, in that frequently it slips later in life by another relative, making for some fraught relationships. The social workers always encourage the parents to disclose to the child at an early stage that they were adopted.

Wanting the perfect child, any form of disability virtually renders the child as ineligible for home adoption. It is not that Indian couples are prohibited from adopting children with disabilities, but ‘damaged goods’ are generally not on their shopping list.

Sadly, shockingly, even mild disfigurement- a cleft lip, skin pigmentation, retarded growth, are all put in the disability box. In the centre which I visited, of the 33 children about 8 had a ‘disability’. A girl with a club foot. Another with Downs Syndrome. Another kid who looked about 1 was actually 3.
Ironically, some of the happiest, most open, beautiful kids in the place.

Other than foreign adoption, there is little future other than an orphanage for these kids. I didn’t get a chance to visit an orphanage (I tried, but was unable to track down the right person), but I hear conditions are worse; lacking funding, staff and basic hygiene. The adoption centres raise funds through care fees which the adopting parents have to pay- an option which is not available to the orphanages.

Suja told me a little about the staff in these centres. Most are uneducated and untrained, even in basic first aid. Apparently a lot of ‘old wives tales’ govern how they administer care; some coming from age old maternal wisdom (which is wonderful), but other practices which are ungrounded. Hands to Hearts provide additional training to these women; trying to raise the standard of care, and educational stimulation for these kids. All necessary, important work.

Coming away from the whole experience however, and overall feeling that it is not enough. Attitudinal change has to happen. The way people with disabilities are viewed needs to shift. Yes, a monumental task; but am drawn back into thinking about what has been happening in Ireland with the Special Olympics and Caroline Casey’s work. If it can happen there, it can happen it. We just need to rally the masses.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Genius Effort

They know what it takes at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.. espically in this climate!

Tackling Taboos

In far too many places the issue of Child Sexual Abuse is a taboo, and India is no exception. But through the efforts of a young team of courageous, dedicated changemakers the issue is getting raised and tackled. Vipin Thekkekalathil, Nancy Thomas, Vidya Reddy and Alankaar, set up Tulir (a tamil word meaning what comes after the bud), to do exactly that.

They run mass education and awareness campaigns; working in schools and with the media to get both policy and practice aligned, and confront the issue.

What struck me about them? Their youth. I first met up with Vipin. He is 26, set up Tulir two years ago, is skilled, confident, and whippet smart. Nancy is 25. She is all of the above.

Lacking grey hairs has been an issue at times. Not been taken seriously initially. People not believing that they could do it. But they stuck with it, didn’t let the commentary stop them, and now they are storming.

Thanks to Vipin too for his hospitality. I particularly liked the night tour of Chennai on the back of his motorbike.

Some Views of Auroville

Auroville- City of the Future? You Decide

Lots of good things can happen by chance. This was one of them. I was flicking over the TV stations a few weeks back and stopped at the National Geographic channel. There was a programme on called ‘Science Safari’ in which a guy was travelling around interviewing a whole range of people involved in technological innovations across India (sound familiar?!). Part of the programme was a two minute slot on solar innovations that are happening at a place called Auroville. Immediately I was intrigued and immediately knew I wanted to go there.

I’m glad I did. It is a fascinating place, not just for it’s innovations in technology, but for what it is trying to create; an experiment in human unity and an attempt to create a city which runs on spiritual and new social principles.

A couple of days of wandering around Auroville (well cycling around Auroville) really was not enough to get a full impression, but it did raise lots of questions for me and I got to meet a wide range of individuals who each have different, alternative ways of looking at the world. A visit to Auroville must be accompanied with an open mind, but once it is open, there is a lot of scope to learn.

Auroville is based on a Charter, in which the founder, Mirra Alfassa, (known as ‘The Mother’ among Aurovillians, the city’s inhabitants), and reads as follows;

Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville one must be the willing servitor to the Divine Consciousness.

Auroville will be the place of unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages.

Auroville wants to be a bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within. Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.

Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

While there I met up with Min Ameen, who is working in a Renewable Energies Research Initiative, Uma Prajapati, who set up a clothing company, Upasana and reached out to post-tunmani communities along the Tamil Nadu coast. I also met with Gilles Guigan, who oversees the construction of the Matrimandir, the meditation centre at the heart of Auroville, and also developed a huge solar kitchen, which has the capacity to cater for 1000 people- all though the power of the sun.

Interesting too. When Auroville was founded, the land was waste land. Now it is like waking into a forest. A big one. Beautiful.

(Uma Prajapati, Upasana)

Vocabulary Expansion

So what is a herpetologist? I didn’t know before setting off on this trip. But I know now. Someone who studies reptiles.

But what have reptiles got to do with social change? At the Crocodile Bank of Madras, outside the town of Mamallapuram, a couple of hours south of Chennai, lots of things.

The Madras crocodile bank, set up by Romulus Whitaker and now run in conjunction with his son, Nikhil, has both a conservation and social outlook. It is actively preserving the habits of reptiles, and educating local about their habitats, and habits.

One of the projects is a snake conservation initiative. After being heavily hunted for the skins, the snake population in the region was in serious decline. The trading and export of snake skins was banned, which has been good news for the regrowth of the snake population, but bad news for the local tradespeople- for they were now out of a job.

But the Crocodile bank came up with an interesting solution. It set up a co-operative with the local Irula tribe, where a local snake catchers society extracts venom from the snakes. Once the venom is extracted it is sold on to laboratories to make antidotes, and importantly, the snakes are then released back into the wild.
Snake population maintained, jobs for the locals.

I heard about Rom from John and Louise Riber, the film makers that I stayed with in Tanzania, who recommended I track him down on my travels. I tracked him down indeed, and made plans to visit the Croc Bank- but unfortunately my train was delayed and I missed Rom by a day- he had left for an part of the province where they run another conservation programme. Nickhil was not about either.

So despite the chase, I didn’t get to meet either of them , but did get to meet some other interesting characters.

Just glad that I was on the right side of the fence!

A Burst of Babble

I have been gallivanting. My lack of activity on the blog is not indicative of my lack of activity overall. Intense, wonderful couple of weeks. There is going to be a flurry of catch up on writing, and I catch up on blog posts. Bear with me as I babble!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Interview on Audeamus

I recently did an interview on Audeamus.com, a website with promotes the work of social entrepreneurship and social entreprise.

Some of you may be interested in reading here

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The queue conundrum

‘A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving’.

So professed the ancient Chinese wiseman, Lao Tse, and I would have been wise to remember the snippet when booking a train ticket yesterday. I certainly got an interesting insight into the operations of the Indian rail system.

I go to purchase a ticket (long queue No. 1). At the front of that queue I am told to move to another counter, with no explanation given (long queue No. 2). At that counter, I ask for the ticket, am given one, pay for it. Not so bad hey? But soon I realise I was given the wrong ticket. I queue again (long queue No. 3), only to be told that I have to ask at the information counter (No. 4). I get there, to be told that they will not be able to give me the information I need until 3pm (it is now 1pm). I return at 3pm (long queue No. 5), to be told that there are no seats available on the train, but that I should go to another reservation office. I go there and queue for a ‘token’, so that I can wait in another queue (No. 6). When my token number is called I go to another counter (wow, no queue), but there I am told I have to go to another information desk (queue No. 7). There I am informed that there is a train the following day and seats are available. So I queue for another token (No. 8), and when my number is called I go to the designated counter. There I am told to go to another counter (No. 9)… but at that counter, I get my ticket… I am amazed!

The thing is I now have two tickets, the one I need, and the one I bought for the wrong train. I ask if there is a way to get a refund. I am told to go back to where I started off... (warning, warning) but I queue there (No. 10), and low and behold, I get my money back.

And it only took 3 and a half hours!

All that said, it is worth it. Train travel in India is one of the pleasures of the place. Open windows, scenery cantering by, thoughts wandering, chai being served, conversations to be had, reading to be done, and on overnight journeys, falling asleep to the lullaby of the tracks. I would queue for that!

Out and About at Mitraniketan

The Abode of Friends

Fifty years ago the area around the village of Vellanad was barren land. Now, thanks to the stalwart efforts of Mitraniketan (meaning ‘Abode of Friends) a rural development training institute just outside the village, it is dense with lush green palms, banana, rubber and tapioca plantations, rice fields, jack fruit, mango, and a litany of other medicinal trees.. and that is just the beginning.

Walking around the area, through the plantations, along meandering earthen tracks, with post-monsoon moisture still in the air, I was on a trail of discovery, piecing together the complex, beautiful jigsaw of Mitraniketan.

Not just one, but three schools. A vocational ‘People’s’ college. A farm science research centre. A food production unit. A well stocked community library. A clinic. An animal husbandry training centre. A printing press. A crafts training centre. Carpentry units. A Weaving centre. A Sports stadium. A yoga and meditation centre. A bio-technology research centre….and through the trees, more would emerge.

Mitraniketan was established in 1956, by Sri K. Vishwanthan, with the aim of educating for life skills. Then just a few huts, Viswananthan, educational philosophy was deep and rich with the influences of Gandhi, Tagore, the American educationalist, Arthur Morgan, and the Danish Folk School Advocate, Gundtvig.
Through it all came a vision of revitalising the land and the people of the region, through educational methodologies which would prise out the potential of both. As Viswanathan has written,
‘In today’s world of transition, we must examine how we approach the concept of development and re-orient our approach and methods in such a way as to put humaneness back into the equation.
Our primary task in this re-orientation is the enablement of people’ development will come about only when individuals as part of a family and community are reminded of their own power in determining the circumstances of their own lives’.
Mitraniketan is a place which seeks out rural solutions to rural needs, training local people in getting the best out of themselves and the land. What’s more, it maintains at its core basic community values- of service, contribution, discipline and trust. Walking around the place, you feel it all in the air. The place has a tranquillity and charm going beyond its physical place. There, my mind was active, my soul calm.

My three days at Mitraniketan were really just a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. Lots more beneath. Fortunately, the history of Mitraniketan has been wonderfully recorded by the American author, Jeff Bigger, in his soon to be revised ‘On Dusty Soil’.

I’d like to than Nathan Cryder from Global Gain for putting me in touch with Jeff Biggers, and for Jeff for helping me make the connection to Mitraniketan. And to Viswanathan and his remarkable family, for their boundless generosity and welcoming spirit.

And, as Jeff would say, Onwards.

Festivities at Mitraniketan

My time in Mitraniketan coincided fortuitously with two festivals, Gandhi Jayanti (to commemorate Gandhi’s birthday), and Vijayadasami, a annual ritual in which young children are initiated into the ‘world of letters’. The children’s fingers are guided to form the first three letters of the Malayalam alphabet, through a plate of rice.

At Mitraniketan, the festivities began on the evening of the 1 Oct, when the auditorium’s stage was decked in lights. Offerings of books, musical instruments and food were made to the Goddess of Learning, Saraswathi. It school community gather to sing and pray.

The following morning the assembly gathered again with more music. The Director of Mitraniketan, Sri K Vishwanthan then welcomed the youngest children to his lap, where helped them make their first letters. A few words were spoken too about Gandhi and his contribution to the educational philosophy of Mitraniketan and there was lots more singing.

The pupils then were all treated to a banana leaf full of goodies; sweet sticky rice, cakes and some savoury snacks (delicious, I can testify!), which Vishwanathan’s daughters had stayed up most of the night cooking.


Chai Chatter

A few years back a Zambian friend of mine visited my home in Roscommon, Ireland. She is tall, stunning, and very black. At the time in Roscommon there were exceptionally few tall, stunning, black women about, and so when we walked into the local pub, mouths dropped, silence fell, and heads followed as she did the very normal act of walking to a table and sitting down. But pretty soon the locals turned back to their pints and the chatter continued.

I am certainly not tall, stunning or black, but I had the exact reaction today when I walked into a local chai shop (the local pub equivalent in these parts). All I did was the simple act of ordering a cup of tea and sitting down, but mouths dropped, silence fell and heads indeed turned. About 20 pairs of eyes were on me as I sipped away. It wasn’t out of malice, just curiosity. But soon the chatter rose, the heads turned back, and I didn’t feel like such an oddity.

Interesting, whether in Ireland, or India, the oddity very soon becomes a familiarity, and all can continue.